Leaving Neverland: Can We Separate Michael Jackson, The Man, From His Music?

Produced and directed by filmmaker Dan Reed, the four-hour documentary Leaving Neverland has been gathering attention ever since its first showing at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Since its airing on HBO, it has ignited a nationwide controversy about the legacy of the late popstar Michael Jackson.

Battle lines are now being drawn in the sand in the wake of Leaving Neverland’s stunning, explicitly detailed chronicle of alleged child sexual abuse by the King of Pop. In revealing, gut-wrenching sit-down interviews, both choreographer Wade Robson, now 36 years old, and James Safechuck, now 41, claim they were sexually abused by Jackson over a period of many years. Robson told the filmmaker that he was seven when Jackson first molested him. Safechuck says he first met Jackson around the time of his ninth birthday on the set of a Pepsi commercial. After developing a friendship with the popstar, Safechuck was repeatedly molested by Jackson in secluded spots throughout his Neverland Ranch and clandestinely in hotel rooms while on tour. Safechuck says Jackson also staged a private mock wedding with a diamond and gold ring. Both men considered Jackson their idol, claiming that as the abuse continued, Jackson also “groomed” their trusting families, splurging for their travel and elaborate shopping sprees.

When allegations surfaced against Jackson in 1993, each testified on his behalf, claiming he never molested or touched them inappropriately, with Robson doing so again in 2005 prior to Jackson’s acquittal on child abuse charges. In his first television interview prior to the airing of Leaving Neverland, Robson told CBS This Morning, “He started telling me that if anybody else ever finds out, we’ll both go to jail, both of our lives would be over.” In the documentary, they both claim that they were not being truthful back then and that it was years later, only after they had children themselves, that they finally felt compelled to share their stories. Four years after his death, both sued the Jackson estate. The lawsuits were dismissed on technical grounds and are currently being appealed.

Director and producer Reed stated in an interview with the Today Show, “That realization that your relationship with your abuser was not a good thing typically comes very late in life for victims of sexual abuse and that is why Wade and James began to change.” After the documentary, Oprah Winfrey brought Robson and Safechuck together along with Reed before an audience of sexual abuse survivors. Meanwhile Jackson’s estate is fighting back in court, as well as in the court of public opinion.

The Jackson family released one of the entertainer’s concerts on YouTube the same night as Leaving Neverland’s debut and filed a lawsuit against HBO on February 21 claiming they broke an agreement never to disparage the pop star. A statement from Jackson’s family attorney Howard Weitzman read, “HBO chose to fund and produce a film where they knew the two subjects had for many years testified under oath and told family, friends and law enforcement that Michael Jackson did nothing inappropriate to either of them.”

The Jackson family also released a statement that says in part, “Michael Jackson is our brother and son. Michael is not here to defend himself, otherwise these allegations would not have been made.”

So this begs the question: Should we keep listening to Jackson’s music and separate the art from the artist? Reactions of Leaving Neverland have been swift and intense, with strong opinions on both sides. John, a Ramapo junior and ardent Michael Jackson fan says, “Leaving Neverland takes an up close look at a harrowing and emotional journey that these kids were forced to take. Their description of what happened is stress inducing to the point where I can never think of Michael Jackson again as a pop star but as an abuser. How could these kids be lying?” Writer and director Judd Apatow tweeted, “It takes days to recover from this documentary. Five minutes in you will think to yourself ‘Oh my God, every word they are saying is true.’” Meanwhile, talk show host Wendy Williams defended Jackson on her talk show, stating, “I don’t believe a word of anything in this documentary.” And many of Jackson’s fans say the allegations have forever tarnished his work. “Muting R. Kelly was easy but Michael Jackson is such [a] staple of my childhood and adulthood that I don’t even know what to do with myself ” writes one conflicted fan on Twitter. Oprah acknowledged that she may take some heat for taking on the King of Pop, but that for her, a sexual abuse survivor, the message is too important.

It is clear that the backlash is very, very real. Oprah did take some heat as she expected she would on social media by many of the most loyal Michael Jackson fans. Many refuse to watch and question the credibility and the motives of Robson and Safechuck. However, for those who did watch all four hours, many expressed a lot of support, especially those who also watched Oprah’s special afterwards. They found it hard not to believe the accusations or be empathetic to Robson and Safechuck. Both men received standing ovations at the screening in Sundance. It was extremely powerful and very emotional, and as Oprah said during the aftershow, “it’s a conversation that we need to be having in this ‘Me Too’ era.” Can we separate Michael Jackson the man from his music? Viewers of the documentary will have to decide for themselves. Leaving Neverland can be seen on HBO, HBO on demand, HBO Go, as well as Amazon.

By: By Justin Landsman, Entertainment Editor

Featured Image: Michael Jackson with James Safechuck, then 10, on Jackson’s tour plane in 1988. (Photo courtesy of Dave Hogan/Getty Images)

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